Thursday 31 January 2013

Photo: Long Live The Revolution

The Day I Met Gamal El-Banna

Yesterday, at 93 years of age, Gamal El-Banna passed away after a struggle with illness. He was a towering thinker, often controversial (at times for his supporters and detractors alike), a profoundly courageous mind, and a man whose massive body of work will live for long.

El-Banna dedicated his life to two causes. The first was the rejuvenation of Islamic jurisprudence, which he believed had been overtaken by a deeply rigid and innovation-aversive mindset that he saw as having clouded the essentially progressive nature of the religion. The second cause, which had been deeply overshadowed by the first, was his leftism.

Nearly a year ago, my friend and brilliant journalist Jess Hill informed me she was looking for an interpreter to do an interview with El-Banna, asking me to find her someone. I immediately volunteered to do it in exchange for cheesecake, being genuinely excited about the idea of meeting the man. 

I was given a landline to call him to set the appointment. I called, and nothing happened. After a couple of days of trying, finally someone picked up. A senior, calm and immensely reassured voice answered, and it was him. Within 30 seconds the interview was set, and a couple of days later we went to see the man.

We were lost for quite a bit in the mazes of old Cairo until we finally found the building where he lived. Once you enter his office, the first thing that will make you gasp is the sheer amount of books he owned. There were thousands of books, categorised, sorted out alphabetically and thematically, and many more were on the floor waiting to be sorted.

Your eyes would not have mistaken how old El-Banna was. But they would also not mistake how lucid he was. He was writing an article for Al-Masry Al-Youm when we met him, on traditional pen and paper to be sure. He was generous with his time, answered all of our questions, and he invited me to visit him on a friendly basis. I did try that one time, but I was informed by his assistant that he was not of good health at the time. Regrettably, I never saw him again.

El-Banna was the half-brother of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan El-Banna. In fact, Gamal El-Banna's last name wasn't even El-Banna, but he took up the name as his pen name. He held a genuine and profound respect for Hassan El-Banna whom he called "Al-Ustath Hassan" and not Sheikh Hassan, holding on the idea that only an Azhar graduate could carry the mantle of "Sheikh," and Hassan El-Banna wasn't. He talked for ages about the tenacity of Hassan El-Banna's dedication to building the Brotherhood, and how the man was an organisational genius in his opinion. Simultaneously, he was also in deep disapproval of what the Brotherhood - which he never joined - was turning into in the last days of his half-brother's life. As for the Brotherhood today, well, he loathed it. He believed in the separation of religion and politics, and he believed in progressivism, two things he saw the current Brotherhood as the absolute opposite of.

It is unclear who will carry forward the school of thought that El-Banna represented. But until one or more such names do come forward, El-Banna's huge body of work alone is something that would take years to read.

On the way out, I took the picture above. He also told me a very interesting historic fact about the desk in the lower part of the photo. But that is, well, for another day.


Saturday 26 January 2013

An Unforgettable Photo From A Protest In Cairo

January 26th, 2013. In the heat of protests and exchanges near the Ministerial Cabinet building. I'll remember this photo for, well, quite a bit.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Updated: Egypt State TV Under Tight Control?

More and more reports as of late that Egypt state TV has been under tighter control by the MB. Well, we know that the information minister (a position the revolution was meant to abolish) is an MB member. I can make the following observations as I watch those channels:

1- I can't see big-name opposition members calling or showing up in any of the programs. Many claim that certain names are banned from being allowed inside the building. Here is one sample of some names. The newspaper isn't the most credible, but they cite a named credible source:
2- All opposition figures that actually do make it to the programming are either second or third tier kind of names. Their influence on the programming is often usually weak due to lack of name power or personal capabilities.
3- I have not seen a single programme that had opposition-only guests. But I have seen shows that have MB/Islamist only guests, as well as MB/Islamists and opposition together. Again: never opposition only.
4- A lot of effort is going into pumping up Morsi's image.

Add to that the fact that the paper version of the Arabic Al-Ahram has become - once more - a useless piece of propaganda with almost no useful or objective journalistic content.

Back to TV. Some have been voicing their concerns. Recently, a very notable example, Hala Fahmy a State TV Presenter held a burial shroud on air against what she claimed was the bias of State TV against the opposition and its intentional omission of their news.

Another interesting moment was when another State TV presenter (and former presidential candidate, and current opposition member) Bothaina Kamel broke the script for a couple of seconds during the news broadcast to say "and we're still with the Ikhwani news broadcast," adding the word "ikhwani" to the regular segue line.

Some might argue that the claims against the bias of state media are exaggerated, some argue they are under-estimated. One thing for sure. This is not a sufficiently objective, unbiased and professional news operation to me.


Egyptian Journalist and TV Presenter Shahira Amin, who was widely lauded for quitting State TV during the revolution due to its bias in the coverage of the events (then returning to the institution after the revolution), has just kindly posted her take on the subject in the comment section below. Shahira is of course a well recognised name in TV journalism, and she most recently interviewed President Morsi during the constitutional declaration crisis. I am sharing her comment here:

"Dear Bassem, you know that I quit the" propaganda machine" early on in the Revolution in protest at State TV's coverage of the uprising. I returned a few months after the revolution but am only producing a weekly show "In The Hot Seat" on Nile TV. I am no longer Deputy Head of the channel as I was before. I can tell you that the bias comes from the anchors, presenters and editors themselves.Some are scared and practice self censorship to keep their jobs .I can assure you that restrictions today are far fewer than the ones during the Mubarak era. The only instruction that's been given is that if we host an opposition figure, we should host a MB figure to have a more balanced picture (which is fair enough). Since my return, I have broken the story on the virginity tests on my show, I have also been able to host Alber Saber and cover his case (he got a 3year jail sentence for blasphemy.) I have also hosted Maher el Gohary, the Muslim convert to Christianity. When I covered Maher's story for CNN in 2010, I was blacklisted by the Mubarak government and was no longer allowed to cover presidential activities. While I do not agree to having a Minister of Information (as that can only mean govt propaganda) I really believe that it is the anchors and presenters that should change .I salute Bothaina and Hala for their courage . They are role models for others to follow."
Thank you Shahira for your take.

In case there are indeed no "blacklists" unlike the many reports, can we then see El-Baradei or Sabbahi on State TV? Let's see then.

Update: Shahira also added:

"I have not heard of a"blacklist" but it's possible that it does exist. However, it is El Baradei himself who refuses to appear on State TV. I interviewed him for a CNN story at a Sharm el Sheikh conference some years ago. A few months later I tried to get a soundbite from him at the Alexandria Library for a Nile TV story but he pushed the mic away, saying "I do not speak to State TV"! I was shocked and dismayed and sent him a written message to tell him so. He folded the paper and put it in his pocket. I do not blame him though . Mubarak regime loyalists in the media did all they can to tarnish his image in those days."

The Arab Spring In A Photo? - الربيع العربي في صورة؟

I hope not.

أتمنى ألا يكون الأمر كذلك.

Monday 21 January 2013

A quick note on my Libya article

I just published a new article outlining what I believe to be 10 main lessons Libya can learn from Egypt's failures in writing a constitution. My conversation with Zaid Al-Ali @Zalali on Twitter about the article has made me realise I might have improperly expressed point number 4 of the article though.

My argument here is not existentially favour of a short constitution, but rather a reminder that: a constitution does not necessarily have to be long as a design rule, that there are things that should belong in the body of law and not constitutional text, and that some articles might have some literary qualities but would perhaps either better belong in a preamble or even not exist altogether due to potential unintended (?) problematic implications arising from vagueness. Also, in case of extreme difficulties on agreeing on certain articles, they could even theoretically be postponed to a post-referendum extended debate and amendments, assuming they could wait.

In other words, no country is forced to get into "who's got a bigger constitution" contest.

Having said that, I do actually believe in the idea that countries transitioning into democracy would benefit from articulating as many consensus governing principles as possible to avoid the repetition of the past or even a different and worse future. And in a country like Libya where modern democracy and state institutions are (hopefully) making their actual debut, a strong constitution is necessary.

Finally, I was also asked about the subject of "vagueness" in the Egyptian constitution. I actually do address what I believe to be its most important aspect while arguing that a clear commitment to human rights should be at the centre of the new Libyan constitution. Ultimately, some intentional textual vagueness can be a workaround to diffuse some Conservative-Liberal tensions (intentionally postponing the fight to the legislative process based on the interpretation of the article), even in traditional law making. But vagueness, as a rule, should be avoided whenever possible.

Sunday 20 January 2013

On Hani Shukrallah

Today I received news that Egyptian Journalism, as well as the Egyptian and world public at large, were being forcibly denied of a giant.  The great Hani Shukrallah was being pushed out of his position as the Editor In Chief of the English portal for the state-owned Ahram.

This was the Facebook post by Hani yesterday morning in which he made his announcement:

“In 2005 State Security had me chucked out as chief editor of Al-Ahram Weekly; on 1 Jan. 2013 new management, under new MB administration, decided to "retire" me as chief editor of Ahram Online, three years too early. Like the last time, I'm supposed to stay on in the Ahram Organisation in some capacity and under new terms, of which I'm yet to be informed. Have written Chairman urging that Ahram Online's fantastic managing editor, Fouad Mansour, take over as chief editor, and that I'll be happy to work with him in any capacity. [...] In any event, and just like last time, no regrets, and no bitterness. I've made my choices and am happy to live with the results.”


I first began to read Al-Ahram weekly more than a decade ago. Compared to how the Arabic version of Al-Ahram was nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Mubarak regime, the Weekly was a true newspaper that truly provided professional and world-class journalism. I remember I used to read through it and often ask “how did they write that in Al-Ahram? How did they let them be so critical?!”

The answer to that question was twofold. The first part of the answer was that the regime felt that an English-speaking paper would have little impact on local public opinion, and the quality of journalism and relative freedom the paper featured would make the world believe Egypt was not as bad or restrictive as it seemed. The second, and most important part, was the what I later discovered to be the epic tenacity, genuine integrity and the famed courage of its (at the time) editor in chief: Hani Shukrallah.

The same thing largely happened when I first came across Ahram Online. At first I expected to come across “careful” journalism, but what I found instead was a fiery, honest, patriotic, professional and world-class news operation that often dared to say what some opposition-oriented media was timid about. The reason, I later found out, was a familiar editor in chief: Hani Shukrallah.


I began writing for Ahram Online shortly after the revolution. When my first article there was published, it changed many things for me on a personal level. My writings and my analysis were henceforth approached with greater seriousness and attentiveness than before, as well as by a wider audience. Ahram Online had built great respect for itself despite the name of "Ahram" being attached to it, and I - a writer who was still trying to have a voice amongst so many others out there - truly benefitted from being associated with such a respected news operation and institution. Since then, tremendous opportunities have come my way, and many wonderful things have happened to me as a writer and as (gasp, I'll say it) an activist. And thus, I truly believe that every successive achievement that I made and make as a writer is in part due to the early graciousness and support of the great people of Ahram Online who gave me a real push, namely Fouad Mansour (a superhero journalist to say the least, an incredible man, and as well as one of the best journalists and people I have ever met), and: Hani Shukrallah.


My real life meetings with the man have yet been too few for my hopes. The first time I met Hani was some time ago during an event we were both attending in Cairo. I had already been publishing in Ahram Online for some time now, and I spoken to him online several times, and found him to be an incredibly supportive and gracious person. In real life however, I met an impossibly modest man despite his towering credentials, a person of incredible intelligence and infinite knowledge, and possibly one of the most likable personalities I have ever come across in my life. I introduced myself and he recognised me, and he gave me an immensely warm and friendly welcome, true heartfelt encouragement as a writer still building an audience for himself, and a remarkable and genuine humaneness was overflowing from him.

The next time I met him was when I was attending an editorial meeting for the first time ever at Ahram Online. Shortly before I entered, someone had spilt tea all over my clothes. My attire had a fantastic range of unintended colours as a consequence, but that is another story. This was the first time I saw the man at work. He leads effortlessly, isn’t above asking questions when needed (though there is almost nothing he doesn’t know), knows how to be passionate and analytical at the same time, loves what he does and shines while he does it, and is brimming with superhuman energy. Most remarkably, he directly inspires an honest dedication from everyone. 


Since the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed Morsi took power, state-owned media (led by an MB Information Minister) have largely began reproducing the same material from the days of Mubarak while putting the name of Morsi instead. Al-Ahram’s Arabic paper is becoming increasingly ridiculous again, even more so given we theoretically had a revolution, and has effectively become a mouthpiece for the MB/Morsi administration. State TV, which once seemed as if it was going to stand up for its independence, now appears to be more and more under the influence of the ruling administration.  Part of it is due to having Brotherhood loyalists in place, but the other part is due to the problem-averse and slave-like mentalities that many in state media have developed over decades. Meanwhile, independent media remains under serious threat. The sidelining of Hani Shukrallah is a profound assault on the freedom of media and journalism, an assault on the right of Egyptians and the world public to have honest, professional and powerful journalism, and an indication of the Brotherhood's extent of actual commitment to free media.


I hope Ahram Online continues to be free and strong, and I have all the faith in its team. I am eternally thankful to Hani Shukrallah for everything he has done - and will do - for Egyptian and Arab journalism, and for all the support and encouragement he has given me. It is people like him who make my country and the region a bit better everyday. I only hope that whatever his next move is, that it would be something that would allow him to continue to change Egypt to the better, one typed-and-published letter at a time.


Note: Hani was promoted to editor in chief of Ahram Weekly in 2003, before he was forcibly removed in 2005. (Thanks A.H. for the detail)

Monday 14 January 2013

زرار الأسانسير

ملاحظة عابرة: بحب جدا لما الشخص بيروح للأسانسير ويلاقي الزرار بالفعل منور، وحد من اللي واقفين كان لسه دايس عليه من ثانيتين، بس لازم برضه يقوم الشخص ده دايس تاني دوسة طويلة وقوية ومليئة بالعنفوان على الزرار just in case مع إعطاء نظرة محرَجة للشخص اللي داس الأول، نظرة معناها "صدقني انا بجد مش قصدي اني اقلل من قدرك، بس كان لازم ادوس عشان اطمئن من جوايا." والبعض الأخر كمان لازم يدوس كذا دوسة ورا بعض عشان you can never fully trust زرار الأسانسير.

هيبة الدولة

قرأت - للأسف، وبالصدفة - مقالا به كلمات وجملا مفزعة لرئيس تحرير الأهرام عبد الناصر سلامة في عاموده اليومي على صفحة الجريدة الأولى، إسمه "الرمز...وهيبة الدولة." والمقال، في نهاية المطاف وبعيدا عن الإلتفافات الطويلة والجدالات المؤسفة، هو محاولة لرفض النقد الساخر لرئيس الدولة والهجوم اللاذع التي يتعرض إليه، بصفته شيئا مرفوضا من حيث المبدأ وأنه إنتقاص ل"هيبة الدولة." وهنا، فهو يرفض هذا النوع من النقد لصاحب المنصب، إيا كان من هو.

وهنا، مثلا، بداية المقال:

"رئيس الدولة هو رمز لهيبتها‏، والانتقاص من شخصه سواء بالتصريح أو التلميح‏، هو انتقاص من هيبة الدولة‏، وسواء كان ذلك من خلال برامج تليفزيونية‏، أو غيرها‏."

جملة جبارة. تستحضر ذكرى عصر مضى، أو يحاول أن يمضي.

والأهرام، للأسف، إنتقل بمنتهى السلاسة من دعم مبارك وتمجيده إلى دعم المجلس العسكري وتمجيده إلى دعم النظام الحالي وتمجيده، بقدر غير طبيعي من السرعة والمرونة. وكذلك ماسبيرو بالطبع.

وأود أن أقول هنا عدة نقاط بشكل سريع:

١- لطالما كان يحلم الكثير من، إن لم يكن غالبية، الشباب العربي بالهجرة من دولهم للأسف، تلك الدول التي يوجد بها أقصى هيبة للرئيس وللدولة نظريا، إلى الدول الأوروبية وأمريكا، حيث السخرية اللاذعة من الرئيس والحكومة وكل مؤسسات الدولة ورموزها موجودة منذ عشرات السنوات. لماذا؟ لأن الدول الأخرى بها نمو وحرية ورخاء، بالرغم من كل مشاكلها. فأي من تلك الدول لديها هيبة حقيقية!؟

٢- لقد رزخت مصر لقرون تحت وطأة عبادة الحاكم وفرعنته، حتى قامت ثورة يناير ضد تلك الممارسة بكل مشتقاتها. وإنتهت - إلى الأبد - فكرة الرئيس الأب والزعيم المبجل والمفدى، وبدأت من الآن فكرة "رئيس مؤسسات الدولة"، الموظف الأعلى رتبة في الدولة. أريد شعبا زعيما لنفسه، ولا أريد أفرادا زعماء. 

٣- هل بعض السخرية والنقد يخرجان عن حدود ما نراه مقبولا أحيانا؟ ربما. ولكن هذا هو إحدى أثمان الحرية. فالحرية تعني أننا مضطرين أن نتقبل ما لا نحبه أحيانا في سبيل ألا يكون لأحد الحق في إخراس الحق يوما. 

٤- كما ذكرت، فالسخرية من الحكماء والرؤساء والمسئولين موجودة في كل الديمقراطيات الناجحة والمتقدمة في العالم، وهي إحدى أقوى الأسلحة ضد فرعنة الحاكم لذاته أو فرعنة من حوله له، وهي إحدى الأسباب الرئيسية لإنتهاء عصر تمجيد الزعماء والأنظمة وكل ما جلبه ذلك العصر من قمع ووبال على البشرية في كل الدول. فإن رأيت من تلك السخرية والإنتقادات ما لا يعجبني كمشاهد أو قارئ، فسوف أغير تلك القناة أو الجريدة، وربما أرسل خطابا إلى ذلك البرنامج أو تلك القناة أو الجريدة لأعبر عن غضبي أو رفضي، وربما لن أقرأ الجريدة أو أشاهد تلك القناة مرة أخرى، وسأدعو من أعرفه لفعل نفس الأمر. ولكن هذا هو سقف رفضي. الإستثناء: الإدعاء الكاذب على شخص ما بشيء لم يفعله وكأنه حقيقة، فهذه هي جريمة بكل تأكيد.

٥- تحمُّل المسئول بالدولة لتلك الأنواع من السخرية، أيا كانت الدولة وأيا كان المسئول، هو دليل على قوته وثقته في ذاته ومشروعه، وهو سببا لإحترام ذلك الشخص أكثر فأكثر. ولطالما شاهدت البرامج والكتابات والرسومات الساخرة من الزعماء والسياسيين والشخصيات العامة في ومن دول العالم بينما كنت أشب، وإذا بالعديد من تلك الشخصيات التي تعرضت لسخرية لاذعة وقد تبوأت مقعدا مرموقا في التاريخ بالرغم من كل شيء، وبعضها دخل التاريخ لأنه كان الراعي لحرية الرأي والتعبير بأنواعها.

٦- لن "يتوحد الإعلام وراء الدولة" أو "ينضبط الإعلام" كما طالب البعض (ملحوظة: هذه الإقتباسات ليست من المقال)، فتلك الأمور لا توجد إلا في الدول الفاشية، ولا يوجد ذلك في أي ديمقراطية، إلا ربما مؤقتا في خلال بعض الأزمات الوطنية كالزلازل وغيرها من الكوارث، ومن تلقاء ذات الإعلام. سيظل الإعلام المؤيد لا يرى سوى أنهار من النجاحات وسيظل الإعلام المعارض لا يرى سوى أنهار من الفشل، وهذا هو الحال في كل دول العالم الديمقراطية. وكل ما يهم هو أن يتحمل الإعلام مسئولية ما يقوله ونتائجه، وأن نعمل كلنا بشكل شفاف لتحسين الإعلام ككل ورفع مصداقيته وأداءه، دون محاولة قمعه أو التحكم فيه.

٧- ولماذا رفض مبدأ أن البعض قد - نظريا - يستحق لذوعة شديدة لنقد ما؟ ألم يستحق مبارك وغيره من المسئولين (على الأقل بعض من) ما أصابهم من نقد لاذع، وغيره الكثيرون؟ 

٨- وماذا عما يسمى ب "هيبة الدولة"؟ إن هيبة مصر خارجيا تأتي من إقتصادها وقوتها المادية كدولة، ومن رؤية العالم لنجاحاتها داخليا، ولدورها حول العالم. وهيبة مصر داخليا تأتي من تنظيم الدولة ونموها ونجاح مؤسساتها وشركاتها وأفرادها، ورخاء مواطنيها، ومن شرطة منضبطة وقوية دون الإخلال بحقوق الإنسان وإحترام المواطين، وغير تلك العناصر. وكما قلت، يتعرض أكبر المسئولين في الدول الديمقراطية لنقد لاذع بشكل يومي، فلا أرى أحدا لا يرى هيبة لأوروبا أو لأمريكا، وبالرغم من مشاكلها كدول إلا أنها ظلت تنمو وتزداد رخاءا على مدار عقود. فلا داعي لخلط الأمور.

دعوا المشاهد يفرز، ودعوا القارئ يفرز.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Batman in Egypt

I had seen those before, but forgot to share them. These deserve a post though. Here he is: Batman in Egypt.

On the serious side: Batman in Tahrir.

And on a more casual note: Batman going around Cairo, experiencing the local life and culture.

UPDATE: On an electoral note, here is Batman voting in the presidential elections run off. Or perhaps, it was someone voting for Batman. (courtesy of @Ayouti)

On a historical note, here is Batman in Pharaonic times. Not sure exactly what's happening there, whether he's killing Anubis or Seth, or they're throwing birds at each other.

While moving around, he was surprised to find an add for "Batman And Robin" still painted on a wall till this day off Ramses, in Cairo. Of course, Batman wasn't particularly proud of that particular movie.

Friday 4 January 2013

About This Blog

So, the question I've been getting a lot is: why haven't you been updating your blog as much as you used to?

Well, first: thank you for actually caring enough to notice that and ask me about it.

Then, a few reasons.

The first is that I have undertaken a recent project that should end in about 2-3 months, which takes a lot of my previously spare time, which I used for articles and blogposts.

The second is that Twitter, somewhat unfortunately, makes it a bit easier to just tweet thoughts and opinions rather than blog or piece them up It is both a good and a bad thing, at the same time.

The third is that I have been writing a lot more outside of the blog, longer analytical pieces, especially on Al-Monitor as of late. You can find a list of my articles there on this link, though last time I checked they still haven't added a couple of articles. So, you could use the search bar to search for my articles just in case, if you need to.

That's about it. Still, I will try to update the blog more often. At least I'll go back to putting links to my newer pieces there. Thank you very much for caring and asking.